(This is part four of an ongoing series starting here. So far, in a world where war is replaced with board-games, former champion Aria Twine has discovered a minotaur with a talent for table-war. Homer the minotaur will become a royal commander if he can beat Queen Anthrapas’ best player.)
Homer was glad to have a room in Queen Anthrapas’ castle, but it wasn’t built for him. Overnight, the queen-sized bed-sheet tangled in his horns and brambly fur. The mattress would be huge for a human, but Homer’s legs still draped off the edges. He’d spent most of the night sleeplessly drawing mazes at a hard mahogany desk.
“Wake up, Homer!” Aria threw open the window-blinds. Homer shielded his eye from the sunlight. “We’ve got to train hard before your match tomorrow morning. Quattuor, bring us a hearty commander’s breakfast.”
Quattuor the gnome bowed and left the room. When he returned with a platter of muffins nicked from the commanders’ dining hall, Homer and Aria were pouring over square cards made of wood and brass.
“I’ve never met Harvey, but he’s a royal commander, so it wasn’t hard to find logs of his games. The guy has textbook human strategies—lots of trained troops in formation.” Aria laid out some cards. “This card here is a falconer. This card is his falcon. This soldier fires arrows quickly, but this soldier fires arrows accurately. Knowing how and when to use these combinations makes Harvey a reliable table-war champ.”
Homer’s fingers read a wooden card’s markings. “Rrrd.”
“Wood,” agreed Aria, “not brass. Brass cards are official, wooden cards are copies. Hobbyists buy ’em to recreate historical matches, or just play around. That’s how I got my start as a kid. We can use wooden cards for practicing.”
“Rrrd,” said Homer again, and he give Aria the card.
“Bird? Oh yeah, that card’s the falcon.” Aria considered the cards she’d brought. “Harvey uses a bird-eye-view to advise his archers. To beat him, we’ve got to beat his birds. Let’s go to the hobby-shop for a test run.”
The bystanders in the capital’s local hobby-shop couldn’t stop staring at Homer and Aria. To placate the queen, Aria had made a tailor sew pants and a vest for Homer’s odd frame. Homer found the clothes constricting, but the hobby-shop’s dim lighting soothed him.
“Ignore the geeks, Homer.” Aria dumped iron figurines on the table. “Quattuor, gather more gnomes to help set up the map.”
Quattuor jogged between twelve table-war boards, each officially twenty feet square. The other tables were either empty or held a war paused mid-battle as all the hobbyists crammed around Homer and Aria to gawk at both in equal measure. The hobbyists ranged in age from eight to eighty.
Aria sorted her figurines. “You dweebs can watch, but don’t go blabbering, okay? We’re only here because we can’t train in the castle, or Harvey might see us.” The crowd murmured when Homer looked through his cards, some wood, some brass.
Quattuor returned with two more gnomes. “I’m afraid, Ms. Twine, we cannot prepare the map we’d discussed. Only unofficial hobby-maps are appropriate here.”
“Hmph.” Aria folded her arms. “I’d hoped to recreate a map Harvey’s been sparring on; I read about it in a hobby-newsletter. There’s gotta be a similar hobby-map.”
A teen in thick glasses pushed his way to the front of the crowd. “Use High Wall.” His glasses slid down his nose, and he sniffled like he’d had a cold all his life. “Harvey himself said the closest equivalent was the map High Wall.”
“Alright, Quattuor, High Wall.” The gnomes scurried over the table. “Have you got your figurines, Homer?”
Homer shook a bag and figurines fell from it. “He’s got real figures,” whispered someone in the crowd. “Even I can’t afford real figures.” Homer gathered his figurines so the gnomes could finish the map. Quattuor stuck tiny trees to the table. The second gnome crawled across rolling a grass mat. The third gnome arranged wood planks into a four-foot wall dividing the table. The map was swiftly finished.
“Eeugh.” Aria grimaced. “Stock trees? A grass mat? Wood planks? I forgot what I used to put up with in hobby-shops. Lay out your troops, Homer, like we planned. I’m setting up Harvey’s field exactly as he would.”
“He wouldn’t do that,” said the teen in thick glasses. “Harvey always chooses his army based on his opponent’s. He studies them beforehand.”
“Shut up, fanboy.” Aria set up her figurines. Her approximation of Harvey’s army was a handful of archers behind four falconers. As Queen Anthrapas’ reigning champion, Harvey would have the first choice of game-pieces from the royal collection and claim the most skilled units for himself. Homer would be left with a crowd of inexperienced longbowmen and Aria’s secret weapon: the royal beast-master’s griffon.
“Harvey will have the first move,” said Aria. “He’ll send falcons over the wall. Their surveillance provides Harvey’s units with information about your army’s position.” The gnomes picked up the falcon figurines and flapped them over the wall. “Remember, just because you and I can see the whole table doesn’t mean our game-pieces have the same awareness. A little direction gives Harvey’s archers an advantage on this map, even against your more numerous longbowmen.”
Homer raised one hand to pause the table. A gnome put his hand to Homer’s and they communed with gnomish finger-taps. The gnome scurried over Homer’s longbowmen to the griffon’s figurine. Using sophisticated hinges, the gnome could make the figurine flex and spread its wings like a real animal.
“Where’d you get that?” asked the teen in thick glasses.
“I know the royal beast-master,” Aria said smugly. “He got that griffon so recently, he hasn’t even had it brassed yet. He’s brassing it at my request.” Homer’s griffon easily snapped the four falcons out of the sky. Homer gestured at his longbowmen, and the gnomes showed how they volleyed a random hail of arrows over the wall. “Harvey’s archers will return fire, but with no information, you’ll win out of sheer numbers. Your griffon can fly over to kill any stragglers.”
The hobbyists chuckled among themselves. “Aria Twine’s taught a minotaur to play table-war, and it can win!”
Aria packed up her figurines. “So, fanboy, whaddya think now?”
The teen in thick glasses surveyed Homer’s figurines. “Harvey would see this strategy a mile away.”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah? How?”
“Harvey is me.” He thrust a hand at Homer. “Shake, boy. I look forward to our match.”
Bright and early the following morning, Aria brought a platter of muffins from the commanders’ dining hall to Homer’s door. “It’s time. You got pants on?”
Homer’s room was silent.
“Huh.” Didn’t Homer know this match was too important to miss? Aria pounded the door. “Homer, come on!” She pulled the handle.
Homer’s room was dark. Heavy blinds blocked out the windows. The odor of fur was nose-crinkling.
Aria barely saw Homer sitting against the far wall with his head tucked between his knees, shivering in the dark. He’d rolled up his bed-sheets and arranged them in a maze with him in the center.
Aria stepped over the maze ‘wall,’ but Homer brandished his horns at her. She backed up and walked around the bed-sheets to give him a muffin. “I visited the royal beast-master. Harvey claimed the griffon’s brass card as soon as he knew we’d need it. He won’t let this go down easy.”
“The beast-master give me all his leftover brasses. Let’s talk strategy over some muffins, okay?” This didn’t rouse the minotaur. Aria sighed and sat next to him. “Twelve years ago I was in your exact position, more or less. I was an orphaned table-war geek living on the streets. I won hobby-tournaments for bread-money. Word got to Queen Anthrapas and she offered to make me a royal commander if I could beat her best champion. Before the match, I was too nervous to sleep or eat.”
“If I lost, I’d go back to the streets. If I won, I’d live in royal luxury. And I won. But let me tell you, being a royal commander wasn’t any less stressful than living on the streets. I was shipped around the continent, and if I ever lost at table-war, there was hell to pay. But whenever you want, you can walk away from that life. You can go back to your labyrinth. But you’ll only have the opportunity to make that choice if you win, and you’ll have a clearer head if you eat some breakfast.”
Homer chewed the muffin.
“Atta boy, Homer. Stand up. Watch your horns.” She led him through the labyrinth ‘corridors’ and opened the door.
Homer covered his eye and turned away from the light.
“Too bright?” Aria sighed. “Labyrinths are dark, I guess. The surface just isn’t built for you. Just do your best, Homer. Can you do your best, for me?”
After a few deep breaths Homer returned to the door, squinting.
“Show them what you’ve got.”
The queen’s throne room had become an auditorium. A representatives from human provinces sat circling the central pit of lava, which was covered with a table-war board. Queen Anthrapas gestured for Aria when she walked in. Aria pointed to her minotaur. “Tell it to Homer. I’m just here to watch.”
“Homer, then. Approach.” Homer’s hooves clopped on the marble steps to the throne. The audience quieted to watch him bow. “Stop there. Turn around.” Homer turned and squinted in the light of a circular window. The window’s light was split by the Great Sword in the distance. Anthrapas coughed to prepare a speech. “On this throne, I can’t help but see that sword. It reminds me of my duty to protect humanity by restricting war to the table. If you want to be a royal commander, you must devote yourself to that cause.” With help from her guards, Anthrapas managed to stand. From several steps above Homer she was barely taller than him when she straightened her back. “The dwarfs are reneging on the treaty which limits bloodshed to table-war. We, the elves, and the seafolk have one chance to choose a champion. That champion must defeat dwarfs on the table and thereby restrict them to it. Homer, if you’re not fighting to take down the threat represented by that sword, leave.”
“Gnomes, prepare the match.”
Ten gnomes—including Quattuor and Septem Dicem, who still wore goggles for working the lava pit—pushed two chairs to the table. Aria poked Homer’s belly. “That’s your cue.”
“Twine!” Anthrapas collapsed back into her throne. “Get away from him and sit down. You’re not giving any pointers.”
Aria curtsied sardonically and sat in the front row.
The gnomes directed Homer to sit in the closest chair, where the circular window shined directly in his eye. Homer heard more people join the audience. Most were human; Homer recognized some of their scents as spectators from the table-war hobby-shop. A few high elves also sat in to watch the match, dragging their shorties behind them.
“I apologize for tardiness, my liege,” proclaimed Harvey, with a bow. Harvey marched to his seat wearing thick reflective glasses and a chest of shiny metal badges on a clean white suit. The outfit reflected light in all directions. With this blinding distraction, Homer fumbled his figurines and brasses.
Sir Jameson sat beside Aria. “I’m not happy you went to the hobby-shop alone. You know I’m supposed to escort you around the capital.” He took stock of the table. “Your minotaur seems ill.”
“Harvey must’ve realized Homer’s sensitivity to light,” Aria whispered back. “He’s dressed to disorient my minotaur.” The queen’s gnomes read Homer’s brass cards. Harvey let his own personal gnome organize his table-war materials; the gnome wore its own white suit.
“Everything is in order,” said one of the gnomes. “The match may begin.” Anthrapas nodded.
“Hold on.” Aria stood. “O Queen, don’t you remember our agreement? I said my minotaur could beat Harvey… blindfolded.”
Anthrapas shook her head. “There’s hardly reason for that.”
Nevertheless, Aria made Jameson give Quattuor his handkerchief to pass to Homer. Gnomes waggled their fingers at Homer to instruct him on how to tie a blindfold. He didn’t understand why, and when he looked back to Aria, she could only harden her expression to give him courage. He tied the cloth around his head so it covered both his good eye. Suddenly his world was dark. He slipped off his eye-patch.
Harvey joined the audience’s soft applause. He arranged his figurines on the table’s edge. “If you’re handicapping yourself like that, it would be shameful not to throw you a bone. As the challenged party, I’ll choose the map for our match. Would you like to choose the weather?” Homer hadn’t seemed to hear. He pointed his horns to every corner of the room, blindly listening to the audience murmur. “I’m choosing a map I’ve studied intensely: the border of the wild wastes where centaurs have built a wall. The area is sunny today, but there’s often rain or snow in the winter. Any moderate weather should be appropriate.”
Homer felt for a gnome’s hands and declared his choice of weather with finger-taps. Then all the gnomes climbed onto the table to build the map. They professionally sculpted humanity’s grassy hills on Harvey’s side, while Homer’s side gradated to the taller, darker grasses of the wild wastes. Dividing the sides was a wall of irregular boulders and stones.
Aria furrowed her brow. “Centaurs built a wall on the border of the wild wastes? Why?”
“You’ve been living in a shack for ages, you know,” said Jameson. “The creatures in the wastes have been unruly lately.”
When they finished the map, the gnomes hopped off the table. They opened a small wooden box of white powder and shook it over the map. The powder made a white cloud that obscured the terrain like fog.
“Hmm.” Harvey considered the fog while selecting game-pieces. Homer felt the cool fog with his hands. Through the fog and the wall, neither Homer nor Harvey could see their opponent’s pieces. “I’m ready to begin,” said Harvey. “My opponent can have the first move.”
Homer waved his hand.
“The minotaur passes the turn to you, sir.” Harvey shrugged. He pointed into the fog and then pointed over the wall. Two gnomes scrambled over the table to maneuver a figurine. When the figurine breached the fog to fly over the wall, Homer saw it was the griffon. Two more gnomes constructed scaffolding to hold the griffon’s figurine aloft. Its wings were stretched mid-flight.
“I’ll admit,” said Harvey, “spying on your practice-match might have been unfair. But you’ve still helped humanity: you’ve shown me griffons are more robust than falcons. You’ve strengthened my intelligence-gathering strategies.”
When Harvey’s griffon landed on Homer’s side of the table, its wings blew the fog away to reveal an egg. The egg’s figurine was the size of a chicken’s egg, so the egg it represented must have been the size of a man’s head.
The gnomes left the table to join hands.
“The griffon should return to my side now,” said Harvey. “With the griffon’s guidance, my archers can pinpoint that egg with arrows.”
“Your griffon isn’t coming back,” said Harvey’s personal gnome. He bowed before the queen. “Ma’am, officiating this quandary may require connecting to the core.”
Queen Anthrapas waved her hand.
Gnomes removed the table to uncover the lava pit. Homer sat back before his fur caught fire. Septem Dicem, wearing dark goggles to protect his eyesight, stepped waist-deep into the lava. “The collective consciousness of gnomes at the core has provided a solution to our problem.” Just as quickly, the table was replaced to seal the lava underneath. A gnome brought a new brass card to the table and chiseled a fresh grid of holes. “We apologize for the wait.”
Homer took the card. Another gnome made him a new figurine out of gnomish clay: a second griffon almost twice the size of the first. Homer grunted in approval.
Harvey puzzled over the second griffon, but waved the problem away. “My loyal griffon will attack the newcomer.”
Instead, the gnomes brought both griffons to Harvey’s side of the table. “They attack your archers,” said a gnome. “These men are dead.”
Elves in the crowd giggled. Harvey covered his mouth. “My surviving archers open fire on both griffons.”
Gnomish fingers clacked. “The griffons eviscerate your archers and return to their egg. There are now no units on the board accepting orders from either commander, so comparing the game-pieces each side has lost in battle, this is technically a victory for the minotaur.”
While the audience laughed, Aria stood and clapped. “Homer! Whoo!”
Harvey strutted around the table. “What did you do?”
Homer gave Harvey the brass card the gnomes had chiseled for him. “Grrffrn.”
“I had humanity’s only griffon.” Harvey realized his mistake while his gnome read Homer’s card. “But you had the griffon’s egg, so—”
“When your griffon saw Homer had its egg, it lost allegiance to you.” Aria marched to the table with her hands on her hips. “Your griffon called for its mate and they slaughtered your squads.”
“But…” Harvey pushed his glasses up his nose. “What are the chances its mate was so nearby?”
“What if,” guessed Aria, “centaurs built that wall because humans recently barged onto the wild wastes and took a griffon? Wouldn’t it be natural for the griffon’s mate to be found near there?”
“We had no statistics regarding the egg’s father,” said Septem Dicem, “but using all available information, the gnomish collective consciousness at the core was able to estimate the strength of the egg’s paternal guardian.”
Aria slapped Homer’s back. “Good game! You made it look easy.”
“Hm…” Harvey ran his own fingertips over the brass card representing the male griffon. “Nice match.” Harvey extended a hand for Homer to shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, commander.”
Homer fumbled for Harvey’s hand. Aria untied Homer’s blindfold, but he covered his good eye to protect it from the light. “Still too bright, huh?” Aria took Septem Decim by the shoulder and removed the gnome’s goggles. With a little adjustment, they fit the minotaur perfectly.
Homer sat in the commanders’ dining hall chewing the edges of a muffin. He could’ve eaten the whole platter himself, but Harvey and some of the other commanders liked muffins, too, and Homer was willing to share.
“That’s Jennifer across from you.” Harvey pointed down the table with a fork. “She likes constructing fortifications right on the battlefield. The boy next to her is Thad; he’s here because his mom’s a noble. Don’t tell him I said that, though, or he’ll start taking my lunch money again.”
Beside Homer, Aria ate scrambled eggs and silently judged every other commander in the room. There were twelve humans, half in their teens, and one elf eating a private bowl of elvish mashed-up-insects-and-honey. Were these really Queen Anthrapas’ best commanders?
By announcing their intention to renege on the treaty, the dwarfs had issued a challenge. The dwarven table-war champion would fight the winner of a tournament between the humans, elves, and seafolk. The three races would each get four seats in the tournament, and Homer had already secured his seat under humanity’s banner.
“We call the elf Sarah. I can’t pronounce her elven name. Sarah? Sarah?” Harvey waved his fork at the girl’s glittering eyes. “Sarah, what’s your real name?”
“Oh, no,” said Jennifer, “not at breakfast!” Sarah laughed. Her laughter released pheromones, producing a scent which conveyed her name in elvish. “Uuugh.” Jennifer pushed her plate away. “Gross.”
Sarah turned up her chin. “A species bearing live young instead of eggs has no right to complain about ‘grossness.’” Aria shuddered. Elves were weird. Homer sniffed the air. He’d never smelled a name before.
“Miss Twine, a letter.” Sir Jameson brandished a sealed envelope. “For Homer, from the queen.”
Aria opened the envelope while surveying the other commanders. Who would join Homer in the tournament? Harvey was a shoe-in, but who else? Surely Queen Anthrapas wouldn’t choose an elf like Sarah; the elvish queen’s pheromones could destroy any elf’s dependability. “Homer.” Aria tapped his shoulder. “I have good news and bad news.”
“This letter officially seats you in the tournament. No turning back now.” Aria skimmed it again. “You might represent humanity in a match against the dwarfs. I’m jealous!”
Homer let the news sink in. Had he sold his labyrinth-life for muffins?
“The bad news: your first opponent is Ebi Anago.” Aria passed Homer the queen’s letter. “Seafolk.”